Chocolate and child labour: ending the bitter harvest


The chocolate industry is probably doing more than any other industry in which there are similar issues of child labour and slavery in its supply chains.

Certainly in comparison to the paltry efforts by garment retailers to end the enslavement of girls and young women in their Indian supply chains the chocolate manufacturers are an exemplar of corporate social responsibility.

Having said that much more needs to be done.

The attention on the issue of child trafficking in the cocoa sector arose over a decade ago as a result of some fine investigative journalism that showed the nature of child slavery in the cocoa farms of West Africa.

Research by Anti-Slavery International in 2010 confirmed that the trafficking – that is the movement for the purposes of forced labour – of children from Burkina Faso, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire in particular is still commonplace, though probably reduced in numbers over the past decade.

Child slavery in the cocoa industry does not occur in isolation.

Rather it occurs because across the region there are high levels of poverty, little respect for children’s rights, fragmentary rule of law and rife corruption.

In these circumstances child labour, where farmers use their own underage children to do hazardous work that is not in the child’s best interests and can keep them out of school, is almost routine.

Such practices can evolve into the trafficking of children for forced labour.

Boys, in the main, are trafficked into the agricultural sector and girls into domestic servitude, and sometimes, to the sex industry.

In cocoa farming boys are ‘imported’ when they are in their early teens or younger and worked brutally until they are in their late teens and hence too big, literally, to intimidate so easily.

When this happens they are sent home, if they are lucky with the price of the bus fare.

When we asked them why they sought work in Cote d’Ivoire the responses of former child slaves were tragically banal: their traffickers promised them easy work there with good money, enough to mean that when they returned home they would be able to afford to buy themselves a bicycle.

While cocoa production provides some immediate economic benefits to West Africa the use of both child labour and child slavery in this sector and across the agricultural sector contributes to the long term impoverishment of West Africa as children are deprived of their opportunity for an education, and hence struggle to reach their full potential in adult life.



There is an expectation by many ordinary people that chocolate companies and others buying commodities from West Africa should somehow just “fix” the problem.

There is a difficulty with this: the ending of child slavery and child labour are social and political matters, far beyond the core competences of most businesses which focus on the relatively straightforward economic task of making a profit.

Put simply most businesses do not know where to start when it comes to addressing human rights abuses in their supply chains.

Hence, unforgivably, many ignore the problem until compelled to by some external factors.

A response that is often made to this is that businesses should simply ensure that all cocoa is “certified” from sources such as Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance.

Certification schemes such as these endeavour to ensure that the producers of the commodities they certify are paid a fair price, and to some extent may promote better farming practice.

While this is a good idea in itself it does not logically follow that introducing this measure of economic justice or improved technical knowledge into the supply chain will automatically bring the sort of social justice necessary to undermine the roots of trafficking and child slavery.

Indeed in 2010 the BBC current affairs programme Panorama reported that child slavery was found in Fairtrade cocoa cooperatives in West Africa.

Clearly a more mindful, human and child rights focus is necessary to unpick systems of slavery rather than a glib presumption that a bit more money to those already abusing children will make them stop.

Anti-Slavery International, along a number of other international organisations, is currently working with the chocolate company Mondelēz International, as part of their recently announced Cocoa Life programme, to try to obtain just such an approach.

We are working to develop policies that guide all involved in the supply chain to proactively seek to identify children who are victims of trafficking and slavery, to establish child protection systems to remove them from harms way and help them rebuild their childhoods, and to develop programmes that will erode the causes of child labour once and for all.

It is, I think, only by establishing credible collaborations between government, the private sector and the not-for-profit sector that a sufficiency of expertise can be assembled to begin to properly tackle the various human rights abuses present in diverse business supply chains.

Such collaborations will, inevitably, be difficult as they will involve organisations that are culturally diverse.

But over time and with a lot of very hard work strength can emerge from such diversity, enabling new ways of thinking and developing new models of doing business that may contribute to the sustainability of business as well as the long term good of individuals, communities and countries.

The alternative is quite literally business as usual and the cost of that approach is measured in the destroyed lives of thousands of children in slavery or debilitating labour.

This, quite simply, is not an acceptable price to pay.